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The Peninsular War

The Impact

The Peninsular War raged for six years across three countries. It involved hundreds of thousands of men, and affected millions of civilians. Hundreds of thousands died, either in battles, or as a result of the activities of soldiers on both sides. Why though, does it matter?

For many years historians have argued that it was side-show, a subsidiary of a much more important conflict that was waged by Napoleon across Europe. In some respects, this is true. The Peninsular War did not end the Napoleonic Wars. None of Wellington’s victories dramatically altered the course of Napoleon’s foreign policy.

Yet the Peninsular War’s importance transcends this. For in the Iberian Peninsula, Napoleon sowed the seeds for his own destruction. Failure to annex Spain, as he had done so many other nations in Europe, left him with what he call his ‘Spanish Ulcer’, constantly draining his forces of men and supplies, which he sorely needed elsewhere in Europe. Strategically, and politically, the Peninsular War was a disaster for Napoleon. It proved that he was not invincible, something which there had only be occasional indications of before that point.

Peninsular War Medal

(Auckland Museum,

Creative Commons 4.0)

However it is what the Peninsular War represented, both to the nations that took part and to those who looked on across Europe, which explains its enduring popularity. For Spain, rightly or wrongly, the story of the Peninsular War has become that of a nation rising to throw off the shackles of slavery forced upon them by a domineering power. For Britain, the Peninsular War was a demonstration of the military prowess of the British nation, a conflict which all the nations of the union could look upon with pride, and marvel at what their combined strength had been able to achieve in consistently defeating one of the greatest military machines the world had ever seen. For the other nations of Europe, many of whom lived in fear of Emperor Bonaparte, the Peninsular War was a shining demonstration of his fallibility, and a repeated source of proof that, against the odds, Napoleon could be beaten.

The Peninsular War did not usher in the end of the Napoleonic Wars, but it was one of the most crucial turning points in its long history.

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